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Reproductive Rights: U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Supreme Court Building on a Cloudy Day

Reproductive rights in America can vary significantly from one state to the next. Each jurisdiction has its own laws relating to abortion, contraception, and family planning. New abortion laws are constantly drafted across the country, and they often get challenged in court.

The final decision-maker on these laws is the U.S. Supreme Court.

This article highlights significant cases of national prominence over the years. There are cases involving the reproductive rights of individuals, including the right to use contraception, plan a family, rear children, and gain access to reproductive healthcare. The links are to the full text of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Reproductive Rights

  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) - Cited in over 100 Supreme Court cases, the Court established a constitutional right of parents to send their children to private schools.
  • Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) - This decision holds that states may not impose sterilization as a penalty for a crime.
  • Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) - This decision established that the government has the authority to regulate the actions and treatment of children - even against parental authority - according to the child's best interests. In this case, the Court held that a mother may be prosecuted for having her children distribute religious literature.
  • Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) - This decision established that unmarried people have the same contraception rights as married couples and may thereby engage in non-procreative sexual intercourse on the same basis.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973) - In this landmark case, the Court held that women have a constitutional right to terminate pregnancies up to 12 weeks through abortion. This was the case that ended all abortion bans. After the 12-week mark, however, the Court found that states have a greater interest in regulating a woman's right to privacy in this area. Read a detailed discussion of this landmark case.
  • Carey v. Population Services International (1977) - The Court expanded constitutional protections in the area of birth control by allowing makers of contraceptives more freedom to distribute and sell their products to teens. Prior to this decision, only licensed doctors and pharmacists could distribute birth control to minors.
  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) - Reaffirming the essential holding in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that states may regulate some aspects of abortion, such as imposing a waiting period to obtain an abortion or requiring that abortion providers explain the risks of abortion. It also established the “viability” standard - that a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy was constitutionally protected until the fetus could survive outside the womb.
  • Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood (2006) - The Court refused to strike down a parental notification law because only a few applications of the law presented a constitutional problem.
  • Gonzales v. Carhard (2007) - In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the federal ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions.
  • McCullen v. Coakley (2014) - The Court struck down a Massachusetts abortion clinic "buffer zone" law that kept protesters more than 11 yards away from patients. The Court ruled that the "buffer zone" effectively cut off free speech efforts on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) - The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. The Court ruled that a federal religious-freedom law applied only to “closely held" for-profit corporations run on religious principles.
  • Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) - Texas passed a law requiring all abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion was performed, which would have cut the number of abortion clinics in half. In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that this law placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion - as it severely limited abortion access - and was therefore unconstitutional.
  • June Medical Services v. Russo (2020) - Louisiana passed a law nearly identical to the one struck down in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. The Supreme Court stuck to precedent and declared Louisiana's law unconstitutional. However, this was a 5-4 decision, as Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed in 2017, joined the dissenting conservative justices.
  • Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022) - Hoping that the addition of Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett would lead to a more receptive court, Mississippi's legislature enacted a law that prohibited all abortions after 15 weeks. This clearly violated previous Supreme Court decisions and was designed as a vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, did so, holding that the Constitution does not provide a right to abortion and specifically invalidated both Roe and Casey. The result is that abortion rights are now regulated by state law.

Have Your Reproductive Rights Been Violated? An Attorney Can Help You

Understanding your reproductive rights and the Supreme Court cases that continue to shape them is crucial. And with abortion no longer protected under the U.S. Constitution, knowing your state's laws on reproductive rights and abortion restrictions is more necessary than ever. But these laws can get complicated and some of the finer points are often best left to the professionals who understand the law and how it can apply to your situation. Get help today from an experienced family law attorney near you.

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